Months before the creatures are stirring at the North Pole, Ross Peterson is already working on a vehicle that—with all due respect—leaves Santa’s sleigh in the dust, pizazz-wise. Extravagantly festooned with decorations, when the Caltrain Holiday Train inches into a station mobbed with kids, it’s as if a brilliantly lighted barge is coming down the tracks, with the royal family Claus—and a brass band! and carolers! – aboard.
Peterson has volunteered on every holiday train since the first one 20 years ago, when he was tasked with figuring out how to keep enormous toy soldiers and candy canes attached to moving railroad cars—and 50,000-plus lights glowing for the train’s full run. The San Mateo resident and railroad buff applied skills he uses in his commercial bakery sales, installation and repair business to cook up what for thousands of families has become a holiday tradition.
“The best thing about it is seeing the faces,” Peterson says. “That’s it in a nutshell. I enjoy the challenge. There’s a lot of technology here. There’s a lot of education that I have to have that I draw on to do this. But the reason I do it is, on that first trip on that first stop when the doors open and you look out at the crowd. That’s it. And all the kids, all the faces. And remember ‘kids’ is defined as anybody between zero and 95. Over 95, oh they might still be there.”
Last year the Covid pandemic pulled the rug out from under the Caltrain Holiday Train and other popular events. Redwood City’s Hometown Holidays parade became a parade of decorated cars; gift bags were handed to the kids inside. Both Bethlehem A.D. and Casa Circulo Cultural’s 10th annual Day of the Dead Festival happened—but “virtually.” This year, with pandemic restrictions hopefully easing, organizers and volunteers are working to bring these events back out of hibernation, although it’s a gamble that the coast will entirely clear if Covid controls tighten unexpectedly.
Hoping for the Best
“Fingers crossed,” Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman says, amid uncoiling strings of stars for the caboose. “What we don’t want to do is find out the weekend before that you can’t have an event with more than 10 people.” The holiday train is scheduled the nights of Dec. 4 and 5, and if it’s grounded by Covid-related restrictions, he says, “I’ll be upset. But I’m just trying to think positively and hope for the best—and tell everyone I know to wash their hands and hopefully we have an event.”
Come what may, since October holiday train volunteers have been spending their Saturdays at Caltrain’s San Francisco rail yard decorating the train. Similarly, Bethlehem A.D. organizers forged ahead with an Oct. 2 recruitment rally for the hundreds of people required to turn a vacant lot on Middlefield Road into the village where Christ was born 2,000-plus years ago and populate it with Roman soldiers, rabbis and other reenactors to bring it to life for three nights before Christmas—Dec. 21, 22 and 23.
Derry Kabcenell, a retired Oracle executive with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT, got involved in the holiday train years ago because he knew Peterson through other volunteer activity. Kabcenell, who ended up coming back year after year, rides the train costumed as an elf. He’s the first one off the train when it arrives at a station and calls out “Evening everybody!” to signal the start of the show.
“I find it a lot of fun,” the Portola Valley resident says, pausing before working on the snow machine. “It’s a combination of a public service thing, a chance to tinker, which I enjoy doing, and a great diverse bunch of volunteers who are out here. And something to do on Saturdays in the fall. Last year was kind of a tough year because every Saturday I felt like I should be someplace else. “
Once hooked, volunteers like Pat Pfeiffer of Redwood City (aka “head decorator”) have found it hard to stay away. She missed one year because of foot surgery. Another year when she showed up noticeably ill, fellow volunteers ordered her home. Though it will be “upsetting” if this year’s event doesn’t happen, Pfeiffer says the thrill of seeing delighted holiday train audiences keeps her coming back.
She enlisted fellow Redwood City resident Kathy Ailand, who says her job is to “follow Pat around and do what’s needed. I really don’t know anything about electricity.” If the event ends up being cancelled and the train has to be un-decorated before it even runs, Ailand is philosophical: “It’ll be disappointing,” she says. “But it will run again.”
When the train rolls into stations, Santa Claus and other holiday mainstays get off and go into the crowd to meet kids, pose for photos and hand out candy canes. Meanwhile, a Salvation Army brass band and a chorus perform sing-along carols. The holiday train also benefits the Marines Toys for Tots program, and the audience is asked to drop a new, unwrapped toy into barrels or hand it to a Marine. People who want to go this year should check out caltrain.com for details about donating toys, as well as the train schedule—and if it is indeed running.
Donations and Help Needed
Paula Dresden, Bethlehem A.D.’s creative director, says this will be the outdoor nativity’s 29th year, and “the people who are involved in it were a little sad” when it happened last year only virtually. It’s a challenge to ramp back up again, and more volunteers are still needed to fill some 350 roles of various kinds, from re-enactors to construction crews.
Donations to cover security and other costs for the free event are also lagging, though Dresden adds, “I feel that we’re going to be okay.” Anyone who would like to volunteer or to contribute can go to bethlehemad.com for information.
Dresden says the walk-through event will be put on in conformance with county health department rules, which may require that visitors enter the gates of Bethlehem in separated groups. If things change and it becomes necessary, she says, a drive-through will be a fallback option.
Sue Ann and Kwame Eason of East Palo Alto have participated in putting on Bethlehem A.D. for eight years. She works with the 100-plus children who rotate through different areas of the Biblical town as members of the 12 tribes of Israel. They may get a lesson on the Hebrew language, move to another location with manger animals, and on to another to make their own bread.
“They’re very much part of presenting the story,” Sue Ann Eason explains. “It’s designed for them to have fun at the same time as they are learning.”
Her husband, meanwhile, throws himself into his role as the innkeeper, who calls out to arriving visitors that Bethlehem is so full that “a lovely couple from Nazareth—this woman is with child—and my wife would not let me turn them away.”
Kwame Eason says he missed not being able to play the role last year. “It seemed like March went on forever,” he says. “… Nothing felt right last year.” He enjoys interacting with the crowd and says, “I try to bring you into the scene.”
As she does every year, Robin Nielsen will bring farm animals from her ranch in Woodside. She appreciates that the nativity story is told without “uncomfortable and difficult” proselytizing. “We don’t encounter that here and my kids can learn about Bethlehem and the Bible and Jesus without being pressured, which I think is more valuable in terms of making decisions on your fundamental beliefs.” She and two other families stay for three full days to ensure Bethlehem A.D.’s barnyard authenticity.
A Hometown Comeback
Hometown Holidays—a staple going back at least a decade—is returning to downtown Redwood City Dec. 4, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. “This is a Christmas present from the Downtown Business Group and the city to the people who live in our community and their families,” says DBG Executive Director Regina Van Brunt. “We’re very excited and hope that people come out for this Covid-modified event.
Photos with Santa (from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) will be outdoors under the Fox Theatre marquee, rather than inside the history museum across the street. “We’re taking many steps to be Covid-safe,” Van Brunt adds, including a reduced number of vendors. There will still be food, entertainment on Courthouse Square, and a shorter-than-usual children’s parade, starting at 4:30 p.m. The event culminates in a tree-lighting at 5:45 p.m.
The Day of the Dead Festival is also modified because of the pandemic. The main event takes place Nov. 7 on Courthouse Square, with dancers, singers, face-painting, vendors, and speeches, starting at 4 p.m. So many visitors crowd into the San Mateo County History Museum to see the traditional Día de los Muertos ceremonial altars that they will be on view starting Nov. 1 to spread out the crowds, according to Veronica Escamez, founding director of Casa Circulo Cultural, which organizes the festival.
“We go to the downtown at 6 o’clock in the morning [Nov. 7] and transform it into a little town in Mexico,” she says. The Day of the Dead has “nothing to do with morbid stuff. It’s more like a celebration of life. … It’s a happy moment when you remember how they were. It’s a celebration of life.”
And post-Covid, perhaps even a more “normal” life.
Photo by Jim Kirkland